Monday, March 14, 2005

Torture in the gulag: The scandal that isn't going away

"I wouldn't join the International Criminal Court. It's a body based in The Hague where unaccountable judges and prosecutors can pull our troops or diplomats up for trial.

"And I wouldn't join it. And I understand that in certain capitals around the world that that wasn't a popular move. But it's the right move not to join a foreign court that could -- where our people could be prosecuted." - George W. Bush 09/30/04

"Men without conscience are capable of any cruelty the human mind can imagine." - Dick Cheney 01/26/05

Brad Plumer of the Washington Monthly blog calls attention to this blog essay on the state of the torture-in-the-gulag scandal:  The Beast in US by Jeanne at Body and Soul blog 03/13/05.  I don't entirely agree with her opening comment that implies that the 2004 presidential election was a referendum on torture; it was barely an issue in the campaign.

But she does a good job of sharply framing the moral issue this is, and why it's inherently corrosive, why, as she says, "A culture of abuse doesn't stay in the box."

In fact, I'd take that argument much farther. The problem isn't just that certain people, already prone to that sin, will be given license to practice it and won't know when to stop. Evil isn't something that exists over there in the other guy, but not in me. Whatever penchant for cruelty exists in each of us will come to the surface. And at some point you end up with a country in which people can look at pictures of abuse, read about men beaten while hanging from the ceiling, or children raped and set upon by guard dogs, and move on, perhaps even find some sick enjoyment in the spirit of vengeance. They won't react to the evil done by their leaders. They won't care. Or worse, they will approve.

She frames her post around an article by a conservative Catholic writer, Mark Shea (Toying With Evil: May a Catholic Advocate Torture? Crisis 03/09/05.  Referring to a pro-torture argument by rightwing Republican Linda Chavez, he responds (in a passage Jeanne doesn't quote):

Instead, she moves to a list of atrocities committed by radical Islamists—ranging from 9/11 to the beheadings of innocent people like businessman Nick Berg, and asks: “Would we have been justified in using whatever means necessary, if [it] might have led us to rescue Berg?”

As difficult as it may be to accept emotionally, the answer to that question is, “No.” Plain and simple. By no means, ever, at any time, in any circumstance, in any world, may we commit grave sin that good may come of it. Romans 3:8 makes this abundantly clear, as does the entire Catholic moral tradition. And that goes a fortiori for calls to use “whatever means necessary.” We cannot torture people for the Greater Good. We cannot—even for a noble end—cut off the fingers of their children while they watch. We cannot subject them to unmedicated dentistry for the purpose of, we hope, gaining vital intelligence. We cannot rape their wives before their eyes because you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. We cannot stick needles under inmates’ fingernails, attach electrodes to sensitive body parts, or beat prisoners senseless because we’re good guys who mean well. We cannot turn blowtorches on a prisoner’s back, suspend him from hooks until he passes out from screaming, castrate, gouge eyes, or employ many other devices wrought by the fertile imagination of fallen man—even if 20 of the finest ethicists money can buy say it will all work out well in the end. Those who embrace such an ethic are, according to the word of Almighty God, “justly condemned.”

Jeanne does quote these paragraphs from Shea:

For a Catholic, the fact that something is “intrinsically evil” ought to be enough to end the debate. Indeed, it should suffice as a granite and immovable rebuttal to this entire line of argument since nobody, Left or Right, has the right to even consider the notion, “Let us do evil that good may come.”

But the pains and penalties of sin (by which we mean “risking the everlasting fires of Hell and eternal damnation”) aren’t the only reasons no Catholic should support the use of torture. It is also worth noting that right here in this world, a culture’s adoption of torture—even the “non-lethal” variety, and even in times of emergency—is a formula for social catastrophe.

For it ... is a slippery slope leading to, among other things, the creation of a special class of people who truly enjoy this sort of work and are good at it. Reward such work and create a special department in the government for it, and people like that tend to find ways to continue plying their special skills, even when they’re no longer wanted by the state that once supported them. Just ask the victims of the quasi-mafia, quasi-KGB operatives who are doing very well in the post-Soviet era of gangsterism in Russia.

Moral arguments like this will go right by a lot of people.  As Dark Lord Dick Cheney says, "Men without conscience are capable of any cruelty the human mind can imagine."

And Shea also holds up opposition to abortion as another moral absolute, a position with which I don't agree.  Not to get into too much of a sidetrack, but this is an example of how the Catholic anti-abortion position is often different in practice from Protestant fundamentalist versions.  The offical Catholic Church's position comes a "culture of life" perspective that opposes abortion and capital punishment, considers fighting poverty an urgent moral imperative and condemns torture and preventive war.

She also provides a number of links to recent articles on the torture scandal, including this editorial from the Los Angeles Times, Torture by Proxy 03/11/05.

President Bush declared in his State of the Union address, "Torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture." Considering what's come to light since then, the most charitable conclusion is that Bush is completely out of the loop.

It's still considered bad form in professional journalism to say straight-out that a Republican president is lying, even though it's plainly the case here.

Bush has argued that tough new rules of engagement are necessary to fight stateless terrorists. But morality aside, what intelligence of value have U.S. officials gleaned from suspects who've been handed off to modern-day dungeons? A case in point: In 2002, federal agents arrested Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian engineer, at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York because his name appeared on a terrorist watch list. Although Arar insisted that he was not a terrorist, the U.S. delivered him to Syrian interrogators. After months in a windowless room and regular beatings with thick electric cables, he said, he confessed to anything they wanted just to stop the torment. A year later, Arar was released without charges.

This barbarism is why U.S. judges have refused to condone the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects. Yet the military still holds about 500 foreign nationals at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Most have not been charged and have no lawyer, often after years in custody. ...

These are only the practical issues. The more haunting problem with Bush's war on terrorism remains the moral one: A nation that considers itself a beacon of freedom seems unable to practice the respect for law and human rights it ardently preaches to others.

Despite the understandable note of despair in Jeanne's Body and Soul post, this issue isn't going away.

"Anyone who believes that Americans can use Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib methods abroad, safe from all versions of them at home, is living in his or her own bubble." - Tom Engelhardt, Tomgram: Greenberg on the Legal War on Terror at Home, accessed 03/14/05


purcellneil said...


Coercive interrogation methods, including sleep deprivation, isolation, physical discomfort, psychological stress -- can be effective in getting people to talk.  We do a lot of this, and we will continue to do it.  Is it torture?  Where do we draw the line?  How far can we go?  

I believe we should define these limits carefully, and we should put safeguards in place to regulate the use of these methods on a case by case basis -- through specific case-by-case authorization and judicial review.

Some methods should be completely outlawed.  Anything that most people would agree to call torture should be outlawed.  But it is naive to ignore the fact that coercive interrogation can come close to that line, and will cross that line if we do not get serious about defining and regulating it.

I don't want my government to torture people, but I expect them to use coercive methods to pressure and manipulate terrorists to get information that will help us find their accomplices and destroy their organizations.

If we don't set rules and controls in place to regulate this behavior, we will be appalled at what is done in our name.  


hestiahomeschool said...

We cannot claim the ethical high ground if we stoop to torture.